So why is the fear of breast cancer so profound and prevalent? It may be partly because no one knows exactly what causes breast cancer; it often seems to strike out of the blue.
But it also could be because “we often associate our breasts with our sexuality, and for many women they’re an important part of their nurturing and bonding experiences with their children,” notes Helen Coons, Ph.D., a clinical health psychologist in Philadelphia who specializes in working with women who have or are at risk for breast cancer. So the idea of finding cancer in that valued, symbolic part of the body naturally engenders fear.
Plus, “most women know women who’ve gone through complex treatment or sat with the uncertainty of breast cancer” and how it will affect their futures, Coons adds. “It’s easy to put off a diagnostic test where a finding could confirm the fear” of having to go through it themselves.
As unpleasant as it is to live with the fear of developing a dreaded disease, in this case, it makes many women avoid breast cancer screening altogether. But it’s a mistake to let your fears and assumptions interfere with your efforts to protect your breast health. To help yourself overcome the fear factor and take action, remember that the vast majority of breast lumps are benign, not cancerous, Coons says. And even if a lump is cancerous, when breast cancer is caught early, it’s highly treatable, and “the long-term survival rates are extremely high,” Coons notes.
To make early detection more likely, heed the following advice:
- Review your family history (on both your mom’s side and your dad’s). Then discuss your risk of breast cancer, based on family history as well as personal medical history, with your doctor, advises Dr. Victoria Seewaldt, professor of medicine and director of the High-Risk Breast Cancer Clinic at Duke University.
- If you have a history of breast cancer, get an annual magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan of your breasts. Also do this if you have a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation or received radiation to the chest (with other cancer treatments, for example), recommends Seewaldt.
If you have a BRCA 1 or 2 mutation, annual MRIs should start between the ages of 25 and 35; if you have a strong family history, “start 10 years before the youngest person in your family got breast cancer,” advises Seewaldt.
- Do monthly breast self-exams. Breast self-exams are good for finding fast-growing cancers that can develop in between annual screenings, says Seewaldt. If you find a lump -- while examining your breasts with a flat palm or while soaping yourself in the shower -- report it to your doctor.
- Get annual mammograms, starting at age 40. “Mammography is a good tool for finding most breast cancers -- especially estrogen-receptor-positive and HER-2-positive ones,” says Seedwaldt.
“It’s important not to turn this into a culture of fear,” Dr. Seewaldt says, “because women are more than their breasts. It’s important to take good care of your overall health and keep the whole body healthy. If you do that, most breast cancers are curable.” Knowing this should help you breathe a deep sigh of relief.
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